LUNCH WITH THE FT – CARLO ANCELOTTI BETTER CALL CARLO
He is the coach Europe’s elite football clubs hire when they want to win trophies. Over melanzane in Mayfair - and a glass of grappa - the food-loving Italian talks to Janan Ganesh about managing galactic egos and how big businesses like his new club Bayern Munich can still be a family
German is the hardest language.” Bavaria-bound Carlo Ancelotti remembers the relative doddle of English, Spanish and French when he grapples with the snaking compound nouns of his new home. “And the verbs,” he groans, “sometimes they go in the second position in a sentence, and then again at the end.” He puffs out his cheeks and - there it is - raises the arced left eyebrow that is the most celebrated feature on his Federico Fellini face. Even in the bland livery of successful men - navy jacket, tieless pale-blue shirt - the 56-year-old Italian football coach is distinctive enough to obviate any need for a caricature. This summer Bayern Munich joins Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid as the sixth European super-club to submit to his leadership. He will arrive from Vancouver - where he has a home with his Canadian wife, Mariann - and he will win major prizes. We know this because he always does. The hand that shakes mine at Babbo, an Italian restaurant of his choosing in Mayfair, has lifted the Champions League trophy three times. It is a record in the modern history of Europe’s highest competition. He has prospered in four countries. Steeped in glory, loved by players for his light touch, he is probably the most coveted coach in the world. He is also the only one you can imagine choosing a club by the local restaurants. Food plays the cameo in most Lunches with the FT but Ancelotti, a gourmand, makes it central to this one. My resolve to order lightly - I usually avoid daytime eating altogether - melts in the glare of his keenness. We ask for some starters to share, of which the best-judged is a baked aubergine melanzane with a layer of cheese that knocks the adjacent plate of burrata into apologetic irrelevance. “You like Italian food?” he checks, and I nod, deciding not to sell him on the superiority of Spanish. Babbo is technically superb but very Mayfair. Four old women in pearls and taffeta sit near us, two hedgies of indeterminate nationality squint at my guest between mouthfuls from the other side of the room. I give him the name of an edgier trattoria in Islington and he rolls it around his mouth a few times as if committing it to memory. This is a man who titled his autobiography Preferisco La Coppa, which declares an ambition for trophies and a taste for ham in one three-word pun.
Italians can be unswervingly faithful to the produce of their region but Ancelotti, who grew up in Emilia-Romagna in the north, veers as far as next-door Tuscany for his wine. He summons a bottle of Guidalberto “I don’t need to try it, I know this wine” - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that mimics the strength of claret without zapping you into a thousand-night coma. For Ancelotti, football clubs are either “families”, such as AC Milan, or “companies”, of which Juventus is a purring example. With his genial style, his cultivation of personal bonds with players and directors, it is clear which he prefers. Silvio Berlusconi ran Milan as a patriarch, involving himself intimately with technical matters. The Agnelli family, which still owns Juve, preferred to put systems in place and keep itself in reserve for strategic judgments. As he raises his glass, I ask him to categorise Bayern. “I have not had so many meetings with them but I think it is a family,” he says, perhaps sanguinely of an institution that is part-owned by Audi, Adidas and Allianz. “They have former players on the board. The club is 70 per cent owned by members.” It is certainly corporate in its ruthless pursuit of players. I wonder who he rates among the nascent talents of world football and that eyebrow vaults up again. “I cannot tell you on the record because the price will go up,” he says, before naming teenagers from France and Brazil, even taking out his phone to show me the latter. “Don’t tell Arsène Wenger!” He is more candid about the established greats he has already managed. There is special affection for Cristiano Ronaldo, a self-motivating near-cyborg who took 3am ice baths in Real Madrid’s training complex. “Even though he had Irina Shayk waiting for him at home!” Ancelotti yelps, referring to the Portuguese’s former lover. “He does not care about money, he just wants to be the first” - meaning the best. Other favoured sons include Andrea Pirlo, who played the midfield role Ancelotti himself held down for Milan and Italy in the 1980s, and the country’s decorated goalkeeper Gigi Buffon (“I found him at 17 in the Parma academy”). We have both ordered the lobster main course. The dish turns out to be a filleted hunk of the crustacean atop a morass of tagliolini. Like all the best pasta, it is moreish for reasons of texture rather than taste. Having no potent flavour to vie with, Ancelotti’s choice of wine suddenly comes into its own. It is as though he does this a lot. Before our lunch, I test Ancelotti’s name on friends who care little or nought for football but know their José Mourinho from their Pep Guardiola. Most had never heard of him. Two assumed I meant Claudio Ranieri of Leicester City. One knew the name but could not place the face. His lack of cut-through which, like all things in life, fails to trouble this equable soul - owes everything to the brand of quiet leadership that is also the name of his new management book. Most elite coaches today are incendiary. There is Diego Simeone at Atlético Madrid, with his bandit chic. Liverpool contains, just about, the white heat of Jürgen Klopp’s enthusiasm. Guardiola is bringing his Rasputin intensity from Bayern to Manchester City. Ancelotti has none of this. “My character is quiet,” he says quietly. “It is because of my family. My father was quiet. He never shouted. He never kicked me. My mother also. That is the fundamental reason.” His book describes a manager who nudges more than he pushes, often going along with conclusions reached independently by his players instead of mandating his own. Leaders within a squad are, he believes, “chosen by the group, not the manager or the president”, and the Dutchman Clarence Seedorf was one of these natural characters at Milan. During his time there, Ancelotti had to cram a galaxy of talent into four midfield positions. With gentle shepherding from him, the players thought themselves into the “diamond” formation - with Pirlo at its base, the Brazilian Kaká at its tip, and Seedorf and Manuel Rui Costa, a lavishly gifted Portuguese, either side - that gleamed on the European stage. Between sips, I ask whether he feels under-exalted, at least outside the game’s cognoscenti. “You have possibilities to be angry every single day,” he says. “But the happiness is not in the credit, it is in the work, in the relationship with the players, with the staff. I don’t worry what they put in newspapers.” Lots of people in public life say that last sentence. Ancelotti means it. If anything, obscurity means privacy, especially in Canada. Even after decades in the Italian countryside and Europe’s great cities, he is thrown by Vancouver’s gorgeous setting. “The beach, the mountains . . . ” He does not take material comfort for granted. The Ancelotti family worked, but did not own, the farm on which he was raised, turning out slabs of Parmesan cheese to a grateful world. Rural life left him with a discriminating palate (he has a mental map of Italian restaurants worth a damn in London, Paris, Vancouver and Madrid) and a dialect that can stump his own countrymen.
Football-barmy in the Italian way, he launched his career as a tactically astute midfielder at nearby Parma. From there he went to Roma, in the capital, which could have been Saturn for this country boy. A knee injury put him out of the 1982 World Cup that Italy won but no bitterness lingers, just gratitude for a career that survived. “You are 23 and you don’t know if you can play again,” he recalls with a wince. “The physical therapy was terrible in those days.” In 1987, Ancelotti made the move that changed his life. A figure of fun called Arrigo Sacchi brought him to Milan. Until then, Italians had favoured a defensive mode of play called catenaccio. “It means this,” he says, tapping the lock on a door next to our table. Sacchi smashed convention by drilling his players to challenge for the ball - or “press” - high up the field, forcing opponents into errors and exploiting them with a lethal batch of imported forwards such as the Dutch great Marco van Basten. Ancelotti was the point of fixity in this swarm, which dominated Europe and still inspires modern coaches. Sacchi turned out to be no joke. His pressing game is visible today from Liverpool to Munich. Some of the most in-demand players are midfielders who seldom score or assist but have the sangfroid and close-control to retain the ball under intense pressure. Clubs have upgraded their fitness and conditioning regimes to sustain the physical effort Sacchi-ism demands. As a player at Milan, Ancelotti served as an on-field conduit for these visions. A deep-lying midfielder must think systemic thoughts about the game, like a coach. After a season or two in the position, a future in management is virtually hard-wired. Not coincidentally, Simeone and Guardiola mastered versions of the role as players. Sure enough, after helping Sacchi steer Italy to the 1994 World Cup final, Ancelotti returned to his roots to start his own coaching career: first with Reggiana, then Parma. Success took him to Juventus and the lofty echelon of clubs from which he has never stooped since. There was Milan, where he clinched two of his Champions Leagues and assembled that luminous midfield. Then Chelsea, where he won the league and cup double in his first season. Then Paris Saint-Germain, where he won the league and imposed professional standards on a club that had more ambition than know-how (“There was no restaurant for the players”). And then, two years ago, la decima - a tenth Champions League for Real Madrid, and a hat-trick for Ancelotti. No tactical revolutions, no psychological ploys, no memorable quotes,
just frictionless success in all of Europe’s major leagues. There is no record quite like it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player who surrenders compliments as though they singe his throat, says Ancelotti is the best coach in the world. On the subject of galactic egos, how does a quiet man bend them to his will? “There are things where you can be elastic,” he explains, “and things where you must be strong. If the players say ‘Coach, we have a tough week, can we stay in bed one more hour?’ that is OK. But when I have a meeting before the game, you must be on time. At Chelsea, we had a meeting at 10.30am and [Didier] Drogba was not there. I don’t know if it was traffic or what. He came at 11. He didn’t play.” What Ancelotti lacks in fire, he more than covers with deep, deep sanity. Quiet leadership, to judge by the book and his personal manner, is less a technique than a disposition, an aura. By standing still in football’s storm of hype and cupidity, he reassures players. He coaches like he played, always providing that fixed point from which others can do spectacular things. The Chelsea squad of 2010 was not so different to the one that fell short in the previous three seasons. The talent was there. Ancelotti got out of its way. The criticism is that, like a less provocative Mourinho, he is ultimately a hired gun. He slides into great clubs, wins prizes commensurate with their station and moves on without leaving his imprint. He is not associated with a style of play like Guardiola, or with a litter of youngsters he nurtured to greatness, like Klopp in his stint at Borussia Dortmund. He is curiously identity-less, like a restaurant in Mayfair. Maybe that is what it takes to live an itinerant life. He has gone farther, seen more, than his rustic roots ever promised. I press him for his favourite posting. “France is difficult because football is not always number one. They have rugby and cycling. They also have some violence in PSG. England has the best atmosphere, the best stadiums and no violence,” he says. Despite leaving Italy seven years ago, the disorder and vegetating infrastructure blighting parts of its league, which was Europe’s best as recently as the 1990s, still pains him. “England is different. When I was with Chelsea, we went to play up in Sunderland. The bus could not drive all the way to the entrance. So the security man from the stadium says, ‘It’s OK, get out and walk.’ I say, ‘No, I don’t go!’ There were Sunderland fans all around. After some time, we had to do it.” And it was OK? “It was perfect. Some fans took pictures. No trouble. I never received an insult in England, ever.” We ask for espressos in lieu of dessert but, before the waiter can retreat, Ancelotti has an idea. “You like grappa?” Yes, Carlo. So what began as an ascetic denial of a sugar rush has turned into a spread of caffeine hits, petits fours and Italy’s answer to sherry. I try to pay but Ancelotti has already arranged something with the proprietor. How quiet. How effective.